Nina Baxley: AT Thru-Hiker

Friends Indeed
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October 9, 2000

It was a tough trek, and not just physically. Each night, I shared a shelter with four to six other southbounders. While I enjoyed the company of each of my fellow "sobos," I often felt isolated in such a large group. It wasn't so much because I'm an introvert; the real problem was my hearing.

I'm deaf in my right ear and have severe hearing loss in my left ear. Even though I use a hearing aid in my "good ear," my overall hearing is less than ideal. I have trouble understanding people if they're soft-spoken, or if they mumble or talk fast, or if there is any background noise—for instance, if there is more than one conversation going on at once. This was often the case in the shelter, and I'm shy about asking people to repeat things when they're not already talking directly to me.

Sometimes I would just sit in the shelter and listen to the sounds of the voices. It was like watching a foreign film without the subtitles—I could make out a word here and there, but I couldn't follow the conversation.

Most people are kind and will repeat things if I need them to. One night, after I had taken my hearing aid out, a fellow hiker had to repeat the name "Citrus" to me five times before I finally asked him to spell it!

One afternoon, however, I was hiking with another hiker, and I had to ask him to repeat himself several times. He had been having a bad day, and his patience was short. He quickly became exasperated and said to "forget it," that it was just too difficult to try to communicate with me. "It's nobody's fault," he said. "We just have a real communication problem because you can't hear."

I felt like I had been slapped. We walked in silence for a couple of minutes before I stopped and let him walk ahead. Then I leaned against a tree and let the tears flow. He would get to the shelter and be able to talk to people. When I got to the shelter, it would be the same old foreign-film-without-subtitles scene again.

It's been years since I've felt sorry for myself on account of my deafness. I'm thankful that my hearing can be drastically improved with a hearing aid. I'm thankful for my ability to hear music and play the piano. The world is full of sounds for me. With the hearing aid, I can hear birds singing, crickets chirping, the wind rustling through the trees, and the autumn leaves crunching under my feet as I hike. For years, I've focused on my many blessings and have known that feeling sorry for myself is mostly a waste of emotion.

But it's also been years since someone has voiced such annoyance at the "difficulty" of communicating with me. And the attitude of self pity, long buried by a more optimistic outlook, rose from the depths of my mind like an ugly sea monster. As I hiked on, I got more depressed about my "handicap," and then I started getting depressed about all the other things that are "wrong" with me—everything from poor eyesight to failed relationships.

As happy as I am to be thru-hiking the AT, I found myself plagued by those kinds of petty, negative thoughts throughout Pennsylvania. Much of it was spurred on by my feeling of "not belonging" with the group I was hiking with (since I had so much trouble understanding them), and it was exacerbated whenever someone showed annoyance at having to repeat themselves. I spent so miles feeling sorry for myself, feeling angry at myself, feeling angry at other people, and telling other people off in my mind.

I always managed to yank myself out of those negative thought patterns when I realized I had fallen into them. But it seemed I was having to yank myself out of them numerous times each day.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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